Summary: Social identity theory proposes that a person’s sense of who they are depends on the groups to which they belong.
Originators and Key Contributors: Social identity theory originated from British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979.
Keywords: identity, ingroup, outgroup, social comparison, categorization, intergroup
Social Identity Theory
Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory explains that part of a person’s concept of self comes from the groups to which that person belongs. An individual does not just have a personal selfhood, but multiple selves and identities associated with their affiliated groups. A person might act differently in varying social contexts according to the groups they belong to, which might include a sports team they follow, their family, their country of nationality, and the neighborhood they live in, among many other possibilities.When a person perceives themselves as part of a group, that is an ingroup for them. Other comparable groups that person does not identify with are called outgroups. We have an “us" vs. “them" mentality when it comes to our ingroups and their respective outgroups.
There are three processes that create this ingroup/outgroup mentality:
- Social Categorization. First, we categorize people in order to understand and identify them. Some examples of social categories include black, white, professor, student, Republican, and Democrat. By knowing what categories we belong to, we can understand things about ourselves, and we can define appropriate behavior according to the groups that we and others belong to. An individual can belong to several groups at the same time.
Ingroups and outgroups are those groups which individuals tend to join as a result of social interactions. Ingroup is a sociological term used to describe a group that people identify with and feel some form of attachment to. In many instances, the attachment is based on opposition toward an "outgroup," a group of individuals toward which members of an ingroup harbor a sense of opposition, resistance, and even hatred. Because ingroups and outgroups typically live segregated lives, the "us versus them" mentality becomes a significant part of ingroups and tends to drive the level of loyalty one has for their group. Ingroup bias is also discussed.
Keywords Allport's Intergroup Contact Theory; Culture; Distinctiveness; Diversity; Ingroup Bias; Ingroups; Intergroup Relationships; Outgroups; Personal Identity; Psychologically Primary; Realistic Conflict Theory; Self-Esteem; Social Identity; Social Interaction; Structural-Functional Theory
Sociologists indicate that social interaction occurs when at least two individuals converse and respond to one another and affect one another's behavior and thought processes via language and symbolic gestures. During this time, each person defines, interprets, and places meaning on the interaction (Stark, 2006). In essence, social interaction can be understood as the exchange of information and ideas in various modes and mediums. Whether the medium is face-to-face or electronic, expressions, eye contact, posture, and voice all have some effect on the outcome of the interaction (Goffman, 1997).
Individuals who take part in these social interactions belong to various groups known as "ingroups" or "outgroups." Ingroup is a sociological term used to describe a group that people identify with and feel some form of attachment to. In many instances, the attachment is based on opposition toward the "outgroup," a group of individuals toward which members of an ingroup harbor a sense of opposition, resistance, and even hatred. Outgroups are required for ingroups to exist (Stark, 2006).
The fact that an outgroup exists enhances the loyalty that ingroup members have for each other and brings more attention to the characteristics that differentiate the ingroup from the outgroup. In fact, the mere existence of an outgroup plays a significant role in unifying an ingroup, despite the diversity of the ingroup i.e. cultural, religious, or political differences (Stark, 2006).
Because ingroups and outgroups typically live segregated lives, the "us versus them" mentality becomes a significant part of ingroups and tends to drive the level of loyalty one has for their group. Little interaction occurs between these groups, resulting in each knowing very little about the other. Misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and mistrust between the two groups are enhanced because there is little or no first-hand interaction experience. In addition, stereotypes are developed and groups view one another within the framework of those stereotypes (Stark, 2006).
Differences in preferred symbols, objects, or gestures often have a tendency to cause clashes among ingroups and outgroups. Some groups' objects have the potential to cause great concern for other groups. In some cases, a group's symbols, objects, or gestures threaten another group so much so that it causes the group to try to eliminate the other group's objects. Destroying the objects becomes synonymous with destroying the group (Stark, 2006). Though symbols tend to cause clashes between ingroups and outgroups, they are not the sole source of the conflict. The meaning behind the symbol when it comes to dealing with diverse groups plays a greater role in the group's conflict. For example, in Israel, prior to the 1993 Peace Accord, displaying the Palestinian flag was illegal. For this reason, the flag became the central symbol of a number of conflicts between the Palestinians and the Israelis (Stark, 2006).
Conflict between ingroups and outgroups is a common reality in an increasingly diverse society (Wenzel, Mummendey & Waldzus, 2007). Theory has played an important role in explaining the conflict that occurs between diverse groups. For example, Allport's Intergroup Contact Theory (Allport, 1954) explains the process by which diverse groups (ingroups and outgroups) interact with one another. The theory posits that a specific type of setting must be created to encourage groups to develop positive rather than conflictive interactive relations. The setting should consist of four conditions:
• Cooperation between groups,
• Equal status,
• Common goals, and
• Support from authority figures in the program or institution in which the interaction takes place.
Less bias and a greater possibility for cross-group interactions have resulted when these conditions have been met, including a reduction in prejudices (Allport, 1954; Pettigrew & Troop, 2000). Allport (1954) suggests that ingroups are "psychologically primary," meaning that familiarity, preference, and attachment for one's ingroups are established before the development of attitudes toward specific outgroups.
Other theorists have tried to better understand what motivates people to join one group over another. Mullin & Hogg (1999) suggest that an individuals' self-concept influences the decision. How group membership defines the self and how social-cognitive processes based on group membership definitions create intergroup differences, stereotypes, and ethnocentrism all play a role in affecting one's self-concept and decision-making.
Social Identity Theory
Key among the research is the Social Identity Theory (Moreland, Hogg & Hains, 1994). The Social Identity Theory has traditionally highlighted the motivating force of a person's desire to have a positive self-concept through membership in groups that share the same values. Based on shared beliefs, characteristics, or experiences, social identity is used to categorize people into groups, help them identify with certain groups, and compare the groups one belongs to (ingroups) with other groups (outgoups), typically thinking more highly of one's ingroup than the outgroups (Tajfel & Turner, 1979).
Social identity refers to social groupings and the way we view ourselves and others. Related to personal identity (the pieces of identity that derive from various personality traits and interpersonal relationships), social identity comprises pieces of a person's identity that result from belonging to a specific group (Hannum, 2007). The Social Identity Theory posits that motivated drives influence group members to create a distinctiveness for their ingroup from the outgroup. Key to this theory is the idea that the social groups one becomes a member of inform that individual's evaluation of him or herself (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).
One piece of this evaluation is self-esteem. The literature indicates that having a high level of self-esteem is key for an individual's success. Self-esteem can be described as a positive or negative orientation toward oneself, and an overall evaluation of one's value or worth. Having high self-esteem indicates positive self-regard versus egotism, as some theorists have suggested (Rosenberg, 1989). Indicators of self-esteem include
• "Showing self-respect and respect for others,"
• Initiating "actions towards achievement of goals,"
• Taking "reasonable risks," demonstrating "assertive behaviors," and
• Functioning "without need for constant reassurance from others" (Miller, 2003, p. 18).
Self-esteem is a popular and widely researched topic, particularly in psychology (Mecca, Smelser & Vasconcellos, 1989). A major reason for its popularity is its pervasive impact on various facets of human behavior including achievement, performance, motivation, and competition (Baumeister, 1993; Bednar, Wells, 1989; Campbell, 1990; Wells & Marwell, 1976; Wylie, 1974, 1979). Mirowsky and Ross (1989) and Rosenberg (1989) note that self-esteem results from others' opinions and evaluations of one as a person of worth. Perceived self-worth comes from social attachments to close friends, family members, parents and teachers and is a function of appraisals of these constituents (Rosenberg, 1979; 1989).
Individuals with low self-esteem seem to know less about themselves than those with high self-esteem (Baumgardner, 1990; Campbell, 1990). Their views about themselves change from day to day, and they have fewer definite beliefs about what they are like and who they are as people than those with higher self-esteem (Baumeister, 1993). Developmentally, people with low self-esteem lack one of the most important pieces of their coping identity during their younger years.
Self-esteem theory discusses how individuals discover their core characteristics from the interactions they have with their peers. Comfort level with one’s gender, sexual orientation, preferred ways to dress, and favorite things to do are all a part of the establishing this level of comfort with the self. Individuals make preliminary choices and commitments about the people and groups they identify with, the roles they can play, and the lifestyles they want, and they get feedback from others that may either confirm their self-image or transform it (Reisser, 1995).
Because the self-esteem of an individual typically comes from the interactions within group membership (Crocker & Luhtanen, 1990), gaining a positive self-evaluation depends on the ability to make a distinction between the qualities of the ingroup and any relevant outgroups (Mlicki & Ellmers, 1996; Brown & Abrams, 1986; Tajfel, 1982; Turner, Brown, & Tajfel, 1979). More importantly, to gain a positive self-esteem from ingroup membership, the distinctiveness of the ingroups compared to the outgroups must be glaring, as ingroup members place high value in distinctiveness and will go to great lengths to protect it. In fact, when ingroup distinctiveness is...